The science of tracking–following the paths of animals in the wild–has been practiced since hunter-gatherers first appeared on the African savanna some 100,000 years ago. Interpreting nature’s vocabulary of footprints and foliage, Stone Age hunters not only pursued their prey but also acquired a practical understanding of recurring patterns in animal behavior. But the tracker’s knowledge was never written down. Even today, among the few remaining hunter-gatherer communities in Africa, Asia and Australia, the best trackers can neither read nor write. Instead, their skills are passed down through the generations by oral tradition. But as these dwindling, isolated communities face increasing social marginalization, their tribal cultures and means of survival are under threat. Now, a South African scientist is using advanced computer technology to revive the dying art of tracking.
After spending 11 years on periodic field trips with the San tribal communities in the remote Kalahari Desert of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, 39-year-old physicist Louis Liebenberg decided that their ancient tracking skills–in his opinion an original, natural science–could not just be documented but could indeed be saved by the use of modern communications technology. In collaboration with the Department of Computer Science at the University of Cape Town, he came up with the CyberTracker, a handheld computer that enables
native trackers to record their observations of animal behavior. In addition tohelping indigenous people preserve their traditions, Liebenberg’s invention makes the tribesmen’s knowledge available to others, opening up potential applications for managing wildlife populations and combating poachers.
The CyberTracker device consists of a 3Com Palm Pilot that is linked to a Global Positioning System (G.P.S.) satellite network. The user interface is a palette of symbols rather than a keyboard of letters: animals are listed by clear silhouettes, while functions such as drinking, running and eating are identified by easily understood symbols. Options are selected by simply touching the appropriate icons on the screen. Using this icon menu, detailed information on everything from feeding patterns to habitual hunting grounds can be logged for more than
40 different animal species. The integrated G.P.S. allows the tracker to pinpoint the exact location of each sighting. “These mostly uneducated trackers have an enormous mental database of information,” says Liebenberg. “Now they can begin to put that information into a modern scientific framework.” The computer recording system is now bringing the San scientific recognition in the field of conservation and wildlife management.
But the San are not the only ones to benefit from this technology. Data from the CyberTracker is fed into a geographic information system, a suite of statistical and graphics software that can compile maps and chart the migrations of various animal populations. Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s premier wildlife sanctuaries, is planning to use 100 CyberTrackers for wildlife tracking and
scientific research on animal behavior and movements. And Liebenberg, himself a master tracker, is training a team of experts to help distribute this technology elsewhere in southern Africa and beyond. The goal, he says, is to enhance rather than replace the native tracking abilities of communities like the San. If he succeeds, then the CyberTracker could symbolize the fusion of Stone Age and Space Age.
By BY PETER HAWTHORNE/CAPE TOWN